Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Post-Reagan Christianity

I believe in states' rights.
Ronald Reagan (1983)

States-rights has always been a code-word for keeping the negro in check.
Cornel West (2011)

In the aftermath of numerous weekend celebrations marking Reagan's 100th birthday, we would like to acknowledge the unique "contribution" that the Reagan Revolution gifted to North American Christianity. Since 1980, Evangelicalism has become basically married to a Republican Party platform that strategically intertwined business, religious and military-industrial interests into a juggernaut (holding claim to the White House for 20 of the past 30 years). Where I come from, Christianity is virtually equated with voting for GOP Presidents and taking conservative stances on a prioritization of issues that looks something like this:

1. The criminalization of abortion ("pro-life")
2. The banning of same-sex marriage ("traditional marriage")
3a. A strong military for economic advantage & homeland security (Commies then and Radical Islamists now)
3b. American exceptionalism (the US as a "city on a hill" and "the greatest country in the history of the universe")
4. Low taxes and small government everywhere else

This is how Rev. Jerry Falwell put it in a speech in 2002:

Early in his first term, I met privately with President Reagan in the Oval Office to communicate to our new leader a list of the major concerns of the so-called "religious right." I was so impressed with his crisp and confident responses, making it very clear to me that he was as pro-life, pro-family, pro-national defense and pro-Israel as we were.

This is the era I grew up in. I remember back in the mid-80s, I attended a Christian elementary school, and one of the male teachers at the school (I didn't know his name) would ritually pass us in the hall and greet us: "Good afternoon, Republican gentlemen." Truly, to be Christian was to be Republican.

And this political framing still has a stronghold on much of the Evangelical Movement. Take this from Richard Land, the President of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, who recently weighed in on 2012 GOP Presidential nominees:

They're [evangelicals] not going to nominate someone who they think can't beat Barack Obama. They're going to want the strongest pro-life, pro-family candidate ... who's strong on defense. They want a candidate who is an economic conservative.

Abortion. Check. "Traditional" marriage. Check. Military. Check. Low Taxes, Small Government. Check.

Reagan was a master at garnering loyalty from Christian leaders. He proclaimed 1983 the Year of the Bible and used personal morality as a kind of binding agent. Take this from a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (also in 1983):

The struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Reagan pandered to Evangelicals by using their language (Bible, personal piety, heaven, etc) and then successfully fit them into the rest of the GOP package (big guns, small government, etc). The common bond has been the focus on the autonomous individual in the form of personal responsibility and individual salvation. This has blended wonderfully with the well-documented (see Evangelical scholars Mark Noll and/or George Marsden) political "ambivalence" that has proliferated in American Christian fundamentalism since the 1910s. Perhaps the core conviction of Evangelicals is that "the best way to change the world is to change individual hearts." For them, public policy is mostly a waste of time...except when it comes to "morality" issues like abortion and homosexuality. Reagan worked this by decreasing income tax rates so that they (theoretically) could give more to their favorite ministries (so that they could change the world for those in dire straits: either impoverished or damned).

What is greatly ironic to post-Reaganite Christians like us is that, despite the utter reverance they give to the Bible, Evangelicals rarely had to legitimate their political platform with what is actually in the Bible (see Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament for an eye-opening analysis of just how little the Bible says about abortion and homosexuality--contrast that with more than a thousand references to the evils of poverty). There was no need to defend a "pro-life, pro-family, pro-national defense and pro-Israel" because those on the right (both theologically and politically) won the competition for how Christian politics was and is narrated in the United States (meanwhile, Reagan abrasively violated Scripture by invading Grenada, bombing Libya, stigmatizing poor black single mothers as "welfare queens" and greatly accelerating the War on Drugs which has led to major racial inequality in the prison population). We were Republicans, not because the Bible told us so, but because the unknown male role model told us we were. End of conversation. This kind of "trickle down" theory was (and continues to be) very effective for those interests that benefit from the status quo.
But that sound you hear in the distance, just a half dozen years since the death of our 40th President is the percolating of a fresh batch of Christian leader who refuses to equate Christianity with either political party. They are out-narrating their conservative Christian counterparts by peering through a lens that, first and foremost, grants privilege to the "least of these," a thoroughly biblical concept from Genesis to Revelation. After all, the God defined by both the Exodus and the Cross "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly...[and] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53).

In the past two weeks, a small group of us in Southern California have attended talks by three of these leaders, from three different Christian traditions: Cornel West, Gregory Boyle and Shane Claiborne.

Out of the three, West, hailing from the rich African-American Baptist tradition, is the most explicit about the very Christian vocation to "bring the era of Reagan to a close." He defines this era as one in which it became popular to be indifferent to the suffering of those in catastrophic circumstances. West understands the multiplicity of Christian traditions, the inherent competition within Christianity:

Christianity's always had a number of different voices, a number of different streams and strands, and I think we had to keep track of prophetic strands and keep track of priestly strands. There's always been Christians who are well-adjusted to greed, well-adjusted to fear, well-adjusted to bigotry. There's always been Christians who are maladjusted to greed, maladjusted to bigotry, maladjusted to fear.

The Republican Party bogarted the hearts and minds of Evangelicals, creating an environment (with wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage) where they became complicit with fear, greed and bigotry. For Brother West, Christianity must defined by the historical definition of the cross:

The cross signifies unarmed truth and unconditional love crushed by the Roman empire, embodied in the flesh of a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus...for me as a Christian, it means I'm looking at those in the prison industrial complex. I'm looking for the children in our dilapidated school system, in the decrepit housing, those who don't have health care and child care.

West interprets the death of Jesus as both a posture and a mission. Christians are those who have courage and humility to speak truth to power, even in the face of death. Christians are also those who stand in solidarity with those who have been shelved, oppressed, persecuted and demonized by society. This construal of the cross juxtaposes with the Evangelical notion of the death of Jesus being the ultimate payment or sacrifice that wipes away the sins of individuals who invite Jesus into their hearts so that they can go to heaven when they die.

Shane Claiborne is a post-Evangelical from Tennessee who has planted himself smack-dab in the middle of the Philly ghetto. His intentional community--The Simple Way--has strong Anabaptist and Quaker roots and is committed to "a new monasticism" that seeks to recover radical discipleship in the American Empire.

Yesterday, Shane Claiborne published a piece calling for Christians and non-Christians to work for peace in a nation dominated by the debt-expanding "war on terror: "the $200,000 spent every minute on the endless war on terror is the gushing, bleeding wound of America." Like West, but from an entirely different Christian tradition, the cross is an enacted parable of following the enemy-loving ways of Jesus:

As a Christian, I am convinced in the power of non-violence by the greatest nonviolent act in human history: Jesus dying on the cross, even for his enemies. You'd think we Christians would be the hardest folks in the world to convince that violence is necessary, but that hasn't always been the case. In fact, much of the world seems confused by Christians who are so quick to abandon the cross of Christ and pick up the sword of Rome.

Father Gregory Boyle, a white Catholic priest working the poorest parish in L.A., started Homeboy Industries two decades ago to create jobs for ex-gang members fresh out of prison. If no one else would hire a convicted felon, he would. Boyle's only publication Tatoos on the Heart (2010) is a simply rich theological journey into an "expanding circle of kinship." For Boyle, the Christian is one who acknowledges that God is the Presence who is "too busy loving us to have any time to be disappointed."

Boyle credits his own change of heart with a trip to Bolivia in the latter days of the Reagan Administration. He became convinced that it was the poor who had a "privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel." Instead of working with wealthy college students at Santa Clara University, he begged for a deferment to Dolores Mission to work with the immigrant and gang populations of East L.A.
Greed, fear and bigotry continue to plague our culture. Reaganomics has contributed to all three. Unlike West-Claiborne-&-Boyle, millions of Christians believe that those who own the resources should be given privilege (through laws and tax policy...not to mention powerful lobbyist influence) so that the wealth will "trickle-down" to the rest of society. This hasn't happened (see below). In 1980, the top 1% of income earners owned 1/10 of all the wealth. Today, they own 1/4. This kind of vicious income inequality inevitably creates an environment filled with fear and scapegoating as people of color are relegated to even harsher conditions. A Christianity in the American Empire that is both pro-life (from the womb to the tomb) and pro-family (from the vanilla suburbs to the chocolate cities to the brown barrios to the red reservations) must prioritize actions addressing this meager situation and bring hope and redemption through an empathetic and just engagement with all of our neighbors through intentional acts of charitable service and public policy initiatives.


  1. Why do you complain (as you have in previous posts) about people referring to the current package of health reform as "Obamacare" when you refer to the economic policies of the 80's as "Reaganomics"?

  2. More on Reagan....


  3. Ignoring for the fact that some people despise the rich, your two charts show pretty impressive trends between tax rates and productivity. Lower levels of taxation imply higher levels of productivity for this segment of the population. (but as described by the zero-sum gain in the post it is at the expense of the bottom 99%).

  4. Timmy T, as far as I know, the word "Reaganomics" was coined by Paul Harvey, the legendary voice of "the Rest of the Story" on radio. It is not used today as a pejorative term. "Obamacare" is not that kind of term. It was first used by conservative political leaders, pundits and media outlets to spread misinformation about the health care legislation of 2009-10. Sean Hannity is a completely different beast than Paul Harvey. Anytime I've EVER heard the word "Obamacare" it has been pejorative and, quite frankly, misleading. If you know more about this, please share.